November 21, 2017
Spurs
May 11, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs guard Jonathon Simmons (17) dunks the ball during the third quarter against the Houston Rockets in game six of the second round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

By Jesse Blanchard

Gregg Popovich hates the 3-pointer. The San Antonio Spurs head coach is pragmatic, so he’s not opposed to his team firing away from deep—three points being greater than two is simple math after all—but the concept of an extra point being awarded for a shot based on some arbitrary distance? No thanks.

“I hate it,” Popovich once said in the midst of an NBA Finals series the Spurs would go on to win against the Miami Heat due, in part, to the strength of the 3-pointer . “To me, it’s not basketball but you’ve got to use it. If you don’t, you’re in big trouble.

“But you sort of feel like it’s cheating. You know, like two points, that’s what you get when you make a basket.  Now you get three, so you got to deal with it.”

He repeated his disdain for it again last season. From ESPN.com’s news services:

“I still hate it,” Popovich told reporters before the Spurs’ 97-94 loss to the Toronto Raptors. “I’ll never embrace it. I don’t think it’s basketball. I think it’s kind of like a circus sort of thing. Why don’t we have a 5-point shot? A 7-point shot? You know, where does it stop, that sort of thing.”

The war over what the most efficient shots are is as over as the debate on climate change. Any rational person can see the writing on the wall. So, instead of fighting that battle, Popovich will have to settle for seeing his Spurs dismantle another team coached by Mike D’Antoni—the proverbial Johnny Appleseed of 3-pointers who spread the current style across the NBA.

But then, Popovich and the Spurs don’t take joy in such matters.

San Antonio defeated Houston in six games, routing the Rockets 114-75 in Game 6 while shooting just 5-for-22 from behind the 3-point line and without Kawhi Leonard, but afterwards Popovich downplayed any accomplishments.

“Tonight’s one of those nights where we’re not as good as we looked and they were not the team people are used to seeing in Houston,” Popovich said. “It happens now and then. one hell of a team. I feel very fortunate we were able to get it done.”

The Spurs have been written off plenty of times over the past decade, but heading into these playoffs, those who portended doom for San Antonio had about five years of data in league trends to support predicting the Rockets to prevail.

During the regular season, the Rockets led the league in 3-pointers made (14.4 per game) and attempted (40.3 per game), scoring 111.8 points per 100 possessions per NBA.com, which was good enough for second in the NBA. By comparison, the Spurs were below the middle of the pack (No.17th) in 3-pointers made per game (9.2) and in the bottom five in attempts (23.5), good for 108.8 points per 100 possessions, which ranked seventh in the league.

Meanwhile, 19.6 percent of the Spurs’ offense was derived from the midrange, which was the third most, behind only the disastrous New York Knicks and Detroit Pistons; and were fourth worst in terms of percentage of points that came in the paint (37.6 percent).

It’s an offense whose strengths mirror those of the Spurs’ best players, Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge.

This series was a clash of styles and philosophies, but don’t mistake the Spurs’ win (or this article) as a repudiation of the evolution of the game. It’s been popular to say that the Spurs are zigging where the league is zagging, but any deviation wasn’t something they intentionally set out to do—it’s not a cunning attempt to exploit market deficiencies.

The Spurs remain on the cutting edge of almost everything in the NBA. They were among the first teams to invest in player tracking and analytics. They were finding corner 3-pointers before corner 3-pointers were cool.

But, again, San Antonio is pragmatic. They’re aware of every shift in the league and the broader discussions about the future of the game. They simply refuse to participate in it.

So many teams in the NBA have tried to adopt Spurs philosophies, yet, San Antonio doesn’t have a catchy phrase on par with Morey zones or Sam Hinkie’s “Trust the Process.” At best, for a time, there was talk of Spurs-ian ball movement. And even that no longer applies to this team.

In 2014, the Spurs’ beautiful game was praised as the right way to play the game to the point where it was seemingly (and wrongly) imbued with some sort of moral superiority. But even as the Spurs undertook that transformation, Popovich conceded if he had a Kobe Bryant, the Spurs would have no qualms about seeking out more isolations and midrange jumpers.

But at the time, San Antonio lacked difficult-shot makers. What they had were two premiere pick and roll creators in Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, an elite-passing big man in Boris Diaw who unlocked the benefits of small ball without abandoning the advantages of a two-big defense, and a bevy of shooters. And so, the Spurs resembled what fans are more accustomed to today.

As Parker and Ginboili aged, the Spurs needed a talent infusion, so they signed Aldridge; who was and is, in many ways, the antithesis of the beautiful game.

The ball can stick in his hands and the shots come contested and often from less efficient areas of the court. But the talent was undeniable.

Last night, Aldridge’s impact was huge, scoring 34 points (on 16-for-26 shooting) with 12 rebounds (five offensive).

Aldridge bullied his way into the paint for easy shots at the rim, but also dug deep into his bag of shot-making talents for a few of those contested turnarounds that can never truly be contested.

Spurs, LaMarcus Aldridge

“I knew I was going to get the ball a little more, so I was trying to be more demanding and make things happen,” Aldridge said. “They guarded me great, they had a good game plan, I just touched it a little bit more tonight so I had a chance to figure it out. I tried to be more dominant down there so I was willing to take some contested shots and get into a rhythm early.”

Part of that game plan was to not let Aldridge spin baseline. As a Spurs guard threw an entry pass and ran through to the opposite corner, their defender would abandon them to send soft help on Aldridge, dissuading future actions rather than pressuring.

In Game 6, the Spurs had Dejounte Murray cut his escape to the corner short, curling back around to the middle of the court to open up a passing lane that allowed some nifty interior passing.

The Spurs also got some mileage out of having Jonathon Simmons throwing entry passes, cutting baseline as if to run through, and stopping short as his defender cheated to beat him on the other side of the play, to find an open baseline jumper on the strong side.

Post ups aren’t an efficient source of offense, but they are a way of changing passing and attack angles when mixed in properly. They also wear on smaller defenders, especially when a team is playing on a shortened rotation.

(Note: Over the past few years it’s been popular to say that depth matters less in the playoffs, where you can give your best players a higher workload—something that inevitably works its way into playoff projections).

The bet in this series was that Houston could run the Spurs’ bigs off the court, forcing them to defend in open space. And they did, at times, which is why there were calls for Popovich to give more minutes to Dewayne Dedmon, the only San Antonio big with quality athleticism.

Though Houston stayed true to its shot distribution, in some ways, it worked to the Spurs’ advantage and keeping Aldridge or Gasol on the court.

Rockets

Ignoring makes and misses, where many might see optimal shot distribution, the Spurs saw vast amounts of real estate that didn’t require defensive attention; allowing Popovich to start Gasol and drop him back to the rim where his length could be a factor (three blocked shots in Game 6).

To be clear, it’s always better to get optimal shots, but reality doesn’t always make that possible. Seth Partnow, who once wrote here at BBALLBREAKDOWN and now works for the Milwaukee Bucks, put it best in a post he did for Vice Sports:

Here’s a thought: we might be seeing the basketball version of an economic concept known as Goodhart’s Law, which holds that when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure. (In sports terms, violating Goodhart’s Law is roughly akin to “playing to the drill.”) In the curious cases of the Sixers and the Rockets, it’s quite possible that both teams have forgotten that three-pointers and shots at the rim are indicators of good offense, and not necessarily good offense in and of themselves—less a cause than a result.

And to be fair, if the Rockets had a Kawhi Leonard or LaMarcus Aldridge, they’d adjust their shot profile accordingly. Morey has admitted as much in the past.

The best analytics people know better than to speak in absolutes, but too many discussions about the game today begin and end with what is or is not acceptable in the “modern NBA.”

A digression and a thought: The Toronto Raptors didn’t lose because DeMar DeRozan prefers midrange shots. They lost because the Cleveland Cavaliers have LeBron James and Toronto lacks enough secondary playmaking to take advantage of the attention DeRozan draws with the ball in his hands.

The Spurs are more culture than system. They succeed because they adapt, be it over a number of years, or even in a game or series. From an article by J.A. Adande of ESPN:

Popovich has changed with the times. He won his first championship in 1999 playing at a pace of 88.6 possessions per game, ranked 19th in the league. Throughout the 2000s the Spurs remained among the bottom third in the league in pace. But from 2012 to ’14, in a faster-tempo era, the Spurs were in the top 10, peaking with a pace of 95 possessions per game in 2013-14.

The Spurs don’t change with the times so much as they do to their own circumstances. There is no one style of play that suits the entire NBA, so they simply focus inwards, evaluate where and what they are and adjust to that.

So much of what the Spurs are about is managing what’s in their control and how they react to what isn’t.

Houston’s 3-point barrages produce a lot of variance, a fun buzz word. Had they hit a hot streak at the right time, there probably wasn’t much the Spurs could do anyhow. Which is why it was always best not to overreact to the blowout losses the Spurs suffered.

But there were so many small details well within the Spurs’ realm of control.

The most obvious one was fouling. All series long, the Spurs’ perimeter defenders—from Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green to Manu Ginobili, Patty Mills and Jonathon Simmons—showed their hands to almost comical effect, denying Houston the cheap fouls they thrived on to buttress its efficiency.

James Harden was abysmal in Game 6, scoring 10 points and finishing with more turnovers (six) than made field goals (two). But he was problematic for the Spurs all series.

Still, San Antonio had rules in place for what they were willing to concede and how they would tax Harden over a long series by taking away some of his preferred options. And, ultimately, a lot of the Spurs’ success came down to something simple.

“Just be solid and communicate often. It was a big team effort,” Simmons said when asked how he was so effective on Harden. “It was mostly the four guys behind me, talking to me. We were on a string tonight. Coach said he’d never seen us moving like that.”

During the last championship iteration of the Spurs, signature moments often came in the form of a flurry of passes, the ball pinging from one player to another faster than the defense could keep up.

Game 6 offered the defensive equivalent of those iconic Spurs plays, with the defensive rotations putting out fires before they could start:

“We finally came out as the more aggressive team,” Aldridge said. “We were more active, we scrambled better. We followed the game plan better than we have in a while.”

The Spurs were the better team all season long, including in head-to-head games. Calling the Rockets a matchup problem for San Antonio was fair, but largely overstated.  The thing about variance is it swings both ways.

Now, if and when the Spurs lose to the Golden State Warriors, a lot of it will be based on the disadvantages pointed out before the San Antonio’s series with the Rockets; but mostly, it will be because the Warriors hold superior talent to every other team by a significant margin.

But for a series against the more modern Rockets and his old enemy, the 3-pointer, Popovich devised a plan to push the math in his favor once more.


Jesse Blanchard

Jesse Blanchard is the author of Dynasty: the San Antonio Spurs Timeless 2013-2014 Championship, author/illustrator of the unpublished #LetBonnerShoot, A Dr. Seuss Story, and former contributor for 48 Minutes of Hell, Project Spurs, and ESPNsa.com. Boris Diaw is his pickup game spirit animal.

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